The Protagonist as Butterfly in Abraham's Promise

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore, 1998-1999

Writers of fiction use an array of devices to create their characters for us, including physical description, the opinions of other characters, a character's innermost thoughts, and contrasting them with the chararacter's deeds. Figurative language, particularly metaphor and simile, also provide important means of endowing what is essentially linguistic construction, a mere assemblage of words, with a more-or-less convincing human selfhood or identity. Metaphor and simile can have such powerful effects because they endow the literary character with a kind of unity, one that suggests the although a character may occassionally act inconsistently, he or she has a discernible core identity. Writing about autobiography, Avrom Fleischman has termed such metaphorical constructions "autobiographical myths." In Abraham's Promise, Jeyaretnam relates the way his protagonist takes an insulting metaphor and then presents it, years later, as such a form of self-representation:

As a child visiting the home of some family friends, I paled at the sight of a glass case filled with butterflies, displayed impaled against velvet backing. The case had been brought out by the man of the house to amuse or amaze his visitors' children, and he took ill-concealed offence at my horror. Father considered the incident a personal shame, the son's squeamishness reflecting on the father's courage. In later years, once, playing cricket, when I hesitated between taking a second run or settling for just one, endin up by being run out, again when I refused to take any steps to expose Krishna's liaison with Rani during the time that Krishna was still a man in the public eye, Father called me, in a quiet voice, I as if it were the most common or garden insult, a butterfly.

By choosing to relate these incidents to his imaginary or fictive audience, the narrator in essence admits the validity of his father's calling him "butterfly" and thereby adopts it as a mode of self-representation as a means of conveying his understanding of himself. Abraham's relation of these three incidents from childhood and adult life obviously conveys his father's judgement that his son is overly sensitive, timid, and unmanly -- and that Abraham believes his is correct. Certainly, the charge of unmanliness is supported by the narrator's description of his own sexual ignorance and ineptness on his wedding night.

This powerful passage in the novel, in other words, works very well to create Abraham's character for the reader. Nonetheless, for all its effectiveness, the image of the butterfly seems curiously ambiguous. The butterfly itself, of course, has had a long iconographical and iconological history as an emblem of the soul -- it has this meaning, for instance, in John Everett Millais's Pre-Raphaelite painting, The Blind Girl -- and the butterfy has also long been an emblem of beautiful transience; and neither meaning seems to have much relevance to Jeyaretnam's novel. A second use of the butterfly comes in the context of the entymologist's or collector's case, where it appears impaled, dead, on a pin for the aesthetic pleasure or intellectual advancement of another being. This meaning or situation doesn't seem particularly applicable to the narrator, or does it?

What relation does the butterfly passage have to Abraham's moments of heroism -- to his refusal, for intance, to have revenge on Krishna or betray him, or to his final apology to his son? Does Abraham, in other words, make himself into a beautiful soul at the end, or does he, by these acts, prove himself a non-butterfly, a quiet hero? Does his character, finally, have any political implications?

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